ARMS, Nintendo’s new fighting game for the Switch, is set to release June 16, but has already found a following thanks to its colorful cast of fighters. From an international pop star, to a slime-like lab experiment, to a robot cop and his robot dog, ARMS’ cast of fighters injects a large amount of personality into what could have been just a silly fighting game. But not all characters have found a positive response. Despite the praise, some fans are disappointed in Twintelle, the only fighter who is a Black woman.
While the other characters use their arms to fight, Twintelle is the only fighter to use her springy hair for combat. Over on Mic, Tanya DePass addressed why having the game’s only female fighter of color box with her hair feels insensitive to the realities of Black women who wear their naturally curly hair. Black hair is still cited as being unprofessional for work or school, so having a woman of color be the only fighter to use her hair as a weapon further perpetuates the weaponization of Black hair.
DePass’s argument is completely valid, and while there are certainly other people of color who agree with her sentiment, I can’t help but feel incredibly empowered whenever I play Twintelle. To me, Twintelle’s stretchy hair deconstructs the notion that her hair is weaponized. She isn’t fighting against her hair, she fights alongside it.
Black female athletes are often criticized for their blackness. Tennis star Serena Williams’s muscular physique has been used against her for years. Gabby Douglas was sixteen years old when she became the first Black gymnast to earn a gold medal in the Individual All-Around, but her success was met with bad takes on her hair. Misty Copeland is the first Black ballerina to become principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, but to do that she had to outperform white dancers whose looks are traditionally viewed as delicate and soft.
Yet despite the vitriol, these athletes have gone on to become the best in their respective sport. During a Ted Talk interview with Gayle King, Williams admitted that when she was younger, she didn’t like her muscular body and wanted to change it. But after winning the US Open, she “realized that my body helped me reach goals that I wanted to reach.” She concluded that the criticism surrounding her body doesn’t bother her anymore. “I’m okay with it as long as I love myself,” she said.
I get the feeling Twintelle doesn’t just love herself—she absolutely adores herself, and if love is an act of resistance, then Twintelle’s adoration for herself is liberation. When it comes to her body and hair, she flaunts them. Her outfit looks like something you would wear on a night out rather than in a fighting match; While other fighters start the match in a hunched position, as if ready to spring forward and fight, Twintelle stands poised, her hands on her hips, which are cocked to one side; Even when she loses, she shrugs. She’s a movie star, why should she care about a few losses? She may not look like the athletic type, but she is because of her ability to control her hair.
Twintelle’s control over her own hair feels like a win for a Black girl who was mocked in school for having kinky hair, and who quivers at the sound of a single strand snapping (i.e. me). With the flick of her wrist, Twintelle’s manipulates her hair to do her bidding. Twintelle is reckless with her hair, and it’s freeing to see her take something that gives me, and other Black women, strife and use it to the best of her ability.
One important thing to note is that my feelings on Twintelle don’t diminish or invalidate those who may feel otherwise. Unfortunately, Black people are still punished or even fired for rocking their natural hair. There is truth in that games still don’t understand how to do Black hair correctly. No matter how good I get my twist-out, Twintelle’s rigid, white curls will never look exactly like my coils. Regardless of our differing hair types, she’s a dark-skinned, curly-haired woman, and it feels good to beat opponents with the curls growing out of her own head. But I understand why Twintelle’s boxing hair may not satisfy other people.
The conversation around Twintelle’s hair resembles the long debate over whether or not Bayonetta’s sexual nature perpetuates the notion that women in games are only sexualized. While some believe Bayonetta’s sole purpose is to please straight, male gamers, others have found Bayonetta’s agency to be a key factor that differentiates her from other sexy game characters. Discussions over Bayonetta have garnered long overdue talks about sex positivity in the gaming space, and helped to expand our thinking of what complex female characters can look like.
I hope Twintelle’s hair will incite a similar discussion within the gaming community about Black people’s hair. There is still a need to improve Black hair beyond the occasional dreadlocks and afro. Twintelle may not be the answer to our problems, but perhaps it isn’t Twintelle who needs to change. Rather, people should reevaluate the entire range of possibility for Black hair. I want to play with my natural hair. I want to love it.
During the ARMS Global Test Punch Demo, I played exclusively as Twintelle. In the background of the games arenas, fans of each ARMS athlete cheer on their favorite fighter. I noticed once, after winning a match, a few dark-skinned girls were behind Twintelle, wearing her mask and Twintelle-styled wigs. ARMS’ art director Masaaki Ishikawa explained to The Verge that fans in the game’s arena are meant to replicate football fans, clad in their favorite team’s uniforms: “They’re super passionate, and these Arms supporters really love the fighting aspect of this competition,” said Masaaki.
It felt surreal to see little girls of color cheering for someone who looked like them. They saw Twintelle and thought she was someone to look up to, much like someone would Serena Williams, Gabby Douglas or Misty Copeland. Like the other fighters, Twintelle is influential. Who knew playing with your hair could be so revolutionary? Of course, Twintelle won’t please everyone—there’s no way she ever could. But that’s okay because she pleases herself, and really, that’s all that matters.
Correction: Originally this piece referred to Twintelle as the only woman of color in the game. There is at least one other, Min Min.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.